A bill backed by the National Rifle Association that strengthens financial penalties against cities and counties for enacting tougher gun laws than the state requires gained momentum on Monday.
Committees in both the Senate and House voted to approve the bill, which takes an existing law that prevents local governments from pre-empting the state’s gun laws and adds financial penalties between $5,000 and $100,000. The financial penalty was reduced from the originally proposed $5 million through an amendment to both chambers’ version of the bill.
The proposal (SB 402, HB 45) was not without critics, who blasted the bill for removing the ability of local governments to police the firing of guns. “This means it will now be legal to discharge firearms in every city in Florida and every residential neighborhood and county,” said Rick Dillon, who represents the Berkeley Forest subdivision in Gulf Breeze, Fla. Dillon was joined by the builder of Berkeley Forest in opposition to the bill.
“You think this sounds crazy?” Dillon told Senate lawmakers. “It happened in our residential neighborhood and it took two years to stop because there was no state law. Dozens of bullets were found…it was like living in a war zone.”
Dillon said his neighborhood struggled for years to stop a nearby property owner from spraying bullets in the backyards of nearby homes. He showed senators a poster board with bullets found in a neighbor’s yard taped to it.
National Rifle Association Lobbyist Marion Hammer disputes that the bill would stop local governments from preventing a property owner from firing weapons near a subdivision of homes.
Hammer said county and city governments could use zoning restrictions to prevent a property owner from turning their home into an impromptu shooting range. An irked Hammer followed Dillon and other bill opponents out of the Senate Community Affairs Committee on Wednesday after their testimony to admonish them.
“You sat there and told (Senate lawmakers) that this bill repeals their ordinances,” Hammer said. “I don’t know who told you that.”
When Dillon said it was an attorney, Hammer asked “can’t you read for yourself?”
Dillon said after his testimony that county commissioners were timid about going after his gun-happy neighbor for fear of violating state law and crossing the NRA. He is concerned now that financial penalties are in play, local governments will be increasingly reticent to police the firing of guns.
Florida League of Cities lobbyists, who oppose the bill, told legislators Monday that the bill changes a longstanding common law practice of shielding elected and appointed officials from civil lawsuits relating to their job function.
Instead, the proposed law creates “individual liability,” meaning a county commission member or local government employee could be held responsible for violating state law, and if convicted, have to pay the financial penalty out of his or her personal funds. The bill also allows an elected official to be removed from office for violating the pre-emption law.
“Holding elected officials personally liable and allowing immediate termination for non-criminal (violations) are two things I am vehemently opposed to,” said Rep. John Patrick Julien, D-North Miami Beach.
The NRA has tussled with local counties and cities that pass stricter gun laws than the state.
In 2000, the NRA filed against the city of South Miami. That city passed a local ordinance to require guns be stored with a trigger lock. The NRA ultimately won in court. Hammer said Lee County also passed an ordinance prohibiting guns in state parks, which she believes violates state law. A local attorney filed suit against the county, she said.
The bill has two more committee stops in the Senate and one more in the House. This is the first year the Florida Legislature has tackled tougher fines for cities and counties that violate Florida’s pre-emption law.
–Lilly Rockwell, News Service of Florida